There Are Many Ways To Say Broken


January 26, 1991|By Rob Kasper

When the family television stopped working, I heard mysel telling a neighbor that our television had "gone up" on us.

Before I lived in Maryland, I never used the phrase "gone up" to describe what happens when something stops functioning.

I used to say the TV was "on the fritz," or had "gone haywire." But the idea of linking the demise of a machine with an ascent to the heavens is a linguistic trick I have picked up from area natives.

The phrase makes some sense. When a machine stops working, a cloud of smoke often rises from the trouble spot. The smoke heads to the sky. And so when your toaster, or your car radiator, overheats, you shake your fist in the air and proclaim, "That #$hing went up on me!"

There was no puff of smoke associated with our television set's demise. But a good descriptive phrase, like a good horseradish sauce, gets a variety of applications.

Moreover, the TV set incident got me thinking about the different ways of saying that something is broken. And so the other day, armed a list of things that have recently gone wrong in my house and with a breezy reference book called "American Slang" by Robert L. Chapman (Harper & Row 1987, $8.95), I took an etymological look at some recent repair efforts.

I recalled that in an effort to restore television reception, I had resurrected a device that changed the direction of the television roof antenna. The gadget had worked the last time I used it, but had since "gone haywire."

I squirted it with machine oil, and "rejiggered" it. It started working.

The derogatory meaning of "haywire" comes from the hay fields, according to Chapman. Down on the farm, anything fixed with the wire used to bale hay is a makeshift repair, Chapman said, and unlikely to last.

As for "rejiggered," its roots go back to the jig, a dance that involves rapid movement. When I "rejiggered" the antenna control, I shook its parts back into place.

One of my favorite words is "kabloooey." A few days earlier a bicycle tire had gone kabloooey. The pronunciation of the word is almost exactly what the tire explosion sounded like, a kinder and gentler version of "kaboom."

Similarly, the light at the top of kitchen stairs went "on the blink." This phrase, the Chapman book said, stems from the notion that lights, like eyes, aren't working properly when they are constantly "blinking." A dusting out of the stairway socket and a fresh light bulb restored good vision to all.

When the automatic icemaker in the refrigerator went "on the fritz," I called my dad for advice on how to fix it. It turned out my dad couldn't help me with the icemaker. He had fixed a different kind. But he did know about the Katzenjammer Kids. That was the name of a comic strip in which two kids, Hans and Fritz, would regularly foul things up. Hence the expression. The icemaker has since seemingly healed itself.

Meanwhile, the power in the kid's electric train set had "gone South," or disappeared. The phrase, according to Chapman, stems from the time when people vanished "south of the border."

I reconnected a loose wire and power was restored to the kid's train. That relieved me. If the repair had not worked I would have had to face the possibility that after only two seasons, the train had "gone kaput" (German slang) or "gone West" (Dodge City slang). Both phrases mean the end of the line.

So in summary, the homefront situation remains normal, alfouled up.

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